Tarzan Of The Apes

US (1918) Dir. Scott Sidney

At the time of writing we are just two days away from the UK cinema release of the latest big screen adaptation of Edgar Rice-Burroughs’s most famous and enduring literary creation, the most adapted fictional character in film and TV (yes, beating Sherlock Holmes and Dracula), since his debut in 1912.

So, what better way to celebrate the arrival of the latest film than by looking at the very first cinematic adventure of the Lord Of The Jungle. Some of you might be surprised to see the date as 1918 and will be probably be even more surprised not to see the name Johnny Weissmuller credited in the main role. For the record, Weissmuller was the sixth actor (of 26) to play Tarzan on screen when he debuted in 1932.

Along with being the first Tarzan film, this one also stands as the most faithful to Burroughs’s original text, quite staggering considering the 200 plus films and TV series to come in its wake over the previous 98 years! Therefore many of the recognised elements of the character and story people think are pure Tarzan are not from Burroughs at all and can be attributed to Cyril Hume, screenwriter of the first Weissmuller film.

Following a montage showing jungle animals in their natural habitat (actually a swamp park in Louisiana) we cut to London where Lord John (True Boardman) and Lady Alice Greystoke (Kathleen Kirkham) are asked to investigate an Arabian slave trade racket in Africa. Whilst en route, the ship’s crew decide to mutiny with one lone sailor Binns (George B. French) defending the Greystokes.

The trio are then abandoned on a remote jungle island, but separated when Binns is captured by the Arabs. Shortly after Alice gives birth to a boy but dies soon after the birth, leaving John to cope alone until he too dies. Meanwhile a female ape, Kala, is hurting following the death of her own infant and after hearing baby Greystoke crying, takes him and raises him as her own.

If you want to show off your trivia knowledge and answer the question, “Who was the first actor to play Tarzan?” the correct answer is Gordon Griffith, the 11 year-old who played him as child and for the most part of this film. We follow the cheeky imp as he gets up to mischief with his chimpanzee friend (not named Cheetah), unaware of his human origins until he happens upon the shack he was born in.

Young Tarzan – which means “white skin” – finds a hunting knife which becomes his prized weapon as he grows up to become the alpha male of the jungle. Played as an adult by D.W Griffith alumnus Elmo Lincoln, his barrel chest and decidedly non-pin-up looks will come as shock to film fans weaned on Lincoln’s later tanned, athletic hunky successors. Yet his portrayal was still suffused with part savage manliness and part gentle naivety.

So, does silent Elmo Tarzan have a Jane? Indeed he does, in the form of Enid Markey. Binns had managed to escape from the Arabs after a decade of slavery, and before returning home to England, had found young Tarzan, giving him reading lessons and an idea of his true heritage. A small team led by Jane’s father, Professor Porter (Thomas Jefferson), arrives in the jungle to verify Binns’s story of Greystoke Jr.

In case you are wondering why Binns didn’t return to the jungle with Porter’s group, his character was created for this film and presumably was considered superfluous having served his purpose. Or, it might be his fate was lost in the editing, as the film was originally three hours long, trimmed to two hours when released, with the only extant cuts being 73 minutes (although the DVD under review here is just 60 minutes).

Considering the era this was made, Tarzan and Jane’s romance is as chaste as you can get but is played out accurately for a man experiencing new feelings having not seen a white woman before. Time restrictions preclude a “Me Tarzan, you Jane” type exchange from happening (which never even happened with that wildly misquoted verbiage in the Weissmuller films), but Tarzan does get to impress Jane with his protective nature.

The film is also bold and groundbreaking in other ways, with brief shots of nudity for boy Tarzan and the native African women (no blacking up here). The manoeuvres through the jungle trees was a rare sight at the time, although the paucity of vine swinging was due to Lincoln not being able to handle them, so Scott Sidney (replacing Alice Guy-Blaché as director) used the footage shot with the original lead actor Stellan Windrow, who quit to enlist in the US army.

With the exception of the chimpanzee, the large apes were actors in convincing suits, but the lions and elephants were real. The apocryphal story of Lincoln actually killing a lion for real after it went for him during the fight scene has since been debunked, and the defeated lion he stood over was dead long before the shot was taken.

Due to the bulk of the footage being lost there is a genuine sense of loss as to what this film could have been, had it more time to explore all the of the salient plot developments of Burroughs’ novel. Instead it tells just a fraction of the story and in this truncated form feels like a rush through a truly fascinating opus that has the clear potential to astound modern audiences with its ambition from almost a century ago.

Every legend has to begin somewhere and for the screen career of this seminal literary character, Tarzan Of The Apes is a genuinely entertaining film, rich with the earnest charm of the period even when viewed via this redacted version. It’s simple and a bit hokey but an important cinematic document nonetheless.

Now to see how the new film holds up… (watch this space)


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